Open Thread, 09/24/2017

Reading Harold Marcus’ A History of Ethiopia. So far a little too heavy on diplomatic as opposed to social history. My curiosity was piqued when reading The Fortunes of Africa when the author observed that the geopolitical extend of the modern Ethiopian state was partially a function of a relatively late state expansion in the 19t and 20th centuries from the Abyssinian highlands.

It’s one of those facts which allow other facts to snap into place. I’ve always been curious about the huge number of Muslims and Somalis in modern Ethiopia. Well, it turns out to be a function of the fact that the borders were drawn at a particular moment and time.

Neolithization of North Africa involved the migration of people from both the Levant and Europe.

A stray thought I had. For years people have been wary about Richard Dawkins’ conflation of atheism with science, and evolution more particularly. I am starting to wonder if the more self-conscious political activism of scientists, almost uniformly on the Left, will start to have an impact.

The problem is that at for now scientists depend on the public for their funding by and large (there are exceptions obviously). A polarized public which does not esteem science and has a faction which sees it as hostile may be less interested in cutting checks for “blue sky” projects (i.e., NIH will be fine, but the NSF….). Since academics are overwhelming of one political orientation I suspect they have a poor intuition of how quickly such a change could come about (there is more real diversity there than is vocalized, but many people I know personally have no inclination for public denunciations due to any heterodoxy, so they keep their mouths shut).

Going to the ASHG meeting in one month. I doubt I will venture out into Orlando. I have been to a conference in that city before, but never left the convention center attached to the airport! Am I missing something?

In general, I avoid national politics. But the whole controversy around football is curious because I’m skeptical that the sport will be around in a generation.

One thing that I have been thinking recently is dropping my Twitter follow back down to 300 or so. I still use Twitter obviously…but it’s getting too dumb. And lots of interesting and smart voices are going passively into lurk mode because it’s exhausting having to deal with dumb people.

Open Thread, 9/17/2017

Reading Vietnam: A New History. The author has an apologia/explanation for why he is focusing not just on European colonialism, but the history of what became Vietnam back to the first contacts with Han China (with some perfunctory archaeological passages). This is great in theory, but from what I have read so far we’re going to have a tryst with the French sooner than later. So I don’t think he really delivered here (though perhaps “normal” people want to read about evil European colonialism immediately?).

By coincidence, there is a Ken Burns documentary on the Vietnam War now. One of my friends from when I was a kid had (has) a dad who was a Vietnam vet. He’d have night terrors. Only now do I realize how recently in the past it was for him back in the 1980s.

I did enjoy The Best and the Brightest.

Sent out my second newsletter. Here’s a stat that I divulged: more than 50% of traffic to this site is directly due to Google+Twitter+Facebook. In 2011 it was 35%. Much of the difference is due to the decline in RSS feeds, and the rise of mobile.

Why is Twitter not what it was in the early 2010s? I think part of it is that there are too many people on Twitter, and the average user is less intelligent overall. Unlike Facebook on Twitter the “genius” is anyone can talk to you. This is a problem.

The grandmaster of Mormon dweeb fantasy (I say this affectionately) Brandon Sanderson is coming out with the third book in his projected ten book Stormlight Archive series.

I’m at peace with the likelihood that I won’t finish this series. Sanderson is a great world-builder, so I’m looking at these books more as fictional ethnographies. Just along for a short ride.

Finally in the homestretch of A New History of Western Philosophy. After the classical period I haven’t really enjoyed this book, it was a slog. I began to read it at the same time as I read Consciousness and the Brain, which I finished in a week. Two years on I’m finally finishing the other book I started then.

Finally, again I highly recommend The Fortunes of Africa. Great read. I do have to say that it was hard not to be particularly appalled by Arab slave traders. It’s not like the European trade isn’t appalling, but that’s widely known. In contrast the driving of black Africans across the Sahara is less in the Western consciousness.

Open Thread, 09/10/2017

Read The Mormon People: The Making of an American Faith this weekend. It’s a quick read, and a pretty good concise survey of the religion and its history. Recommended.

Next up I think I’ll tackle Martin Meredith’s The Fortunes of Africa.

Genomic evidence for population specific selection in Nilo-Saharan and Niger-Congo linguistic groups in Africa. The title gets at the interesting parts (though unsurprising). Not sure about the phylogenomic/population history aspect…for example, contends that Sub-Saharan ancestry mostly derives from Nuba mountains. I don’t think that’s true.

“Open Threads” seem to have a huge variance in number of comments. Perhaps what I prime has a big impact?

Why I am not blogging anymore. I am one of a dying breed.

In relation to why Twitter is getting dumber, there are five times as many users as in 2010. Can the platform really keep quality up? What I like to think of as “dumb Twitter” is getting to be a bigger and bigger proportion, and the bigger it gets the more people go silent who are of high quality.

Posting on the Rohingya controversy the last few days has convinced me that most people who express opinions are mostly interested in posturing. People of conscience can agree that killing of civilians is wrong. But the details of action from that premise vary wildly. Also, my attempt to get at the facts of contextual elements apparently make me suspicious to many people!

In relation to foreign policy, I think that distrusting “elites” is probably for the best. The primary thing they know is their own interests.

The Last Days of ISIS’ Capital: Airstrikes if You Stay, Land Mines if You Flee.

PETA versus the postdoc: Animal rights group targets young researcher for first time. I think this sort of behavior is more acceptable in the world of ‘social media shaming.’

Americans Losing Faith in College Degrees, Poll Finds. Not all Americans:

Today, Democrats, urban residents and Americans who consider themselves middle- and upper-class generally believe college is worth it; Republicans, rural residents and people who identify themselves as poor or working-class Americans don’t.

Also, colleges don’t get it:

Schools such as Michigan State, the University of Wisconsin system and the University of Florida are trying to improve their public standing with marketing efforts. In Wisconsin, the university system has taken out billboards across the state highlighting the impact alumni have had on the local economy.

The problem isn’t in marketing, it’s in the product.

On a related vein, over at Oberlin, Enrollment Drop Creates Financial Shortfall. In the Pacific Northwest, After a turbulent spring, Evergreen faces enrollment decline, budget woes. Finally, Long After Protests, Students Shun the University of Missouri. Hyper-politicization does not seem good for the product.

Finally, interested readers should consider getting a copy of Introduction to Quantitative Genetics. The next five years or so will be saturated with results coming out of massive genomic studies which will make much more sense if one has a theoretical framework with which to interpret the them.

Open Thread, 9/3/2017


I found the above video through Rod Dreher. It touched me on a visceral level because the baby in the first portion looks strikingly like my youngest. He’s sitting and smiling so much now. Really appreciating his infant-hood, as this is the third time we’re going through this.

All I can say in relation to having children is that now I know what matters, all that matters, and that none of the rest matters.

The penultimate season of Game of Thrones has come and gone. They’re really compressing a lot of material into only a few episodes. I didn’t watch the earlier seasons before the show got ahead of the books, but I have to think they were more leisurely. I’ll watch the final season to get a sense of the ending in the books in case George R. R. Martin doesn’t finish them, but I think the sprint to the finish line means that if he does write the remaining books he’ll have a lot of free territory to himself.

Now on Stage: The Countdown to a New Taylor Swift Album. Streaming has gone from 23 to 63 percent of the market in three years.

Neanderthals and Denisovans as biological invaders.

Evolutionary biology today and the call for an extended synthesis.

The second sage. The fact that Westerners don’t know who Mencius is (a premise of the piece) is ridiculous. But probably true. I would still recommend Xunzi: The Complete Text for another early Confucian viewpoint.

I added a disclosures page. Mostly all that matters right now is that I work at Insitome, trying to do interesting things in the personal genomics space (and now that the Helix store is open you can purchase our first offering).

If you haven’t, please sign-up for my newsletter. I’m seeing more and more despondency on the nature of Twitter from the people who use it the most and produce the vast majority of the content. I suspect it will collapse sooner than later….

The Looming Decline of the Public Research University. As someone with intellectual aspirations but a conservative political viewpoint I’m conflicted. On the one hand the academy produces great work. On the other hand a lot of academics don’t see a difference between someone like me and Nazis (judging by “likes” of things I’ve retweeted to test the waters in relation to those promoting the proposition). Like it or not many conservatives perceive that a subset of the academy is dangerous to us on existential grounds. Why should we pay for our own destruction? If we could surgically remove these departments then the university could maintain itself, but that seems impossible. So you see where the future leads.

This is probably the worst US flood storm ever, and I’ll never be the same. “…Houston may not be a nice place to visit, but you would want to live there. I do.”

The Best DNA Ancestry Testing Kit. There is some good and some bad in this review. But it’s thorough.

Fun fact, 44% of this site’s traffic is now mobile.

Open Thread, 08/27/2017

Razib & Dr. Ghulam Sarwar (1896-1996)

I showed my daughter a photo of my maternal grandfather yesterday. He was holding me in his lap. It’s probably about 1981, so he would have been about 85 years old then. I was his first grandchild, as he had a family late in life. He saw a lot of changes in his life. Born into the British Raj during the late Victorian period, he died when I was using the internet regularly to email friends and relatives.

In his home village they called him the “Goony Doctor”, as Ghani was part of his longer surname.

Restless Empire: China and the World Since 1750. Seems like an interesting and relevant book. On the other hand, we always have to keep in mind that China’s labor force peaked several years ago. The demographic pressures on China in the 21st century will probably always mean that it won’t exhibit the vigor of a nation like the United States of America during the baby boom.

Hurricane Harvey has been a big deal. In Central Texas we’ve been hunkering down, but it’s Houston that is in real danger. America’s 4th largest city.

Still soliciting sign ups for my newsletter. It’s more of a “hey Twitter has disappeared here is where I am on the web” notification system. Have only sent one mailing so far. Will increase frequency in future, but probably max once a month.

A lot of discussion on “science Twitter” about getting rid of GREs. Scientists are smart, but they don’t know everything. To understand ‘intelligence testing’ I recommend people read Intelligence: All That Matters or The Neuroscience of Intelligence. People throw around ideas like “GRE is culturally biased,” but cultural bias on testing is a whole topic with a specific meaning. That is, are the tests able to predict future performance on tasks to the same extent across groups?

I suspect that the GRE is on its way out though. Many scholars don’t support the shift, but they won’t say much in public lest they be attacked. Of course that will lead to greater emphasis on undergraduate school attended as well as the eminence of those giving recommendations.

(note, if a university uses the GRE appropriately there should be no correlation between outcome and GRE score, as they filter out all the students that need to be filtered out)

Open Thread, 08/20/27

I’ve been off the map for a bit because I’m eclipse chasing. #TotalityOrBust as they say. The whole family has been converging on zone of totality, and now we’re there. Obviously I’m excited.

There are lots of things going on in the world. One thing though that I’m beginning to think is that people would benefit reading more cognition science. I know I certainly did years ago. The main issue is that we’re not rational in the way we think we’re rational, and that leads to a lot of confusions why other people behave the way they do. Check out Enigma of Reason (I came upon a lot of this literature through the study of the cognition of religion).

Complex Patterns of Admixture across the Indonesian Archipelago. Someone who knows archaeology should read this….

The genetic history of Ice Age Europe. This was published last year. But it should be re-read. Closely.

Open Thread, 08/13/2017

Busy with kids and life. But perhaps time to read Peter Turchin’s Ages of Discord: A Structural-Demographic Analysis of American History. I was skeptical when Peter presented this idea years ago. Less so now.

I’m on the eclipse train. The whole family will be chasing it soon.

Paul Thompson is on Twitter. If you read this blog in the early/middle 2000s it will be a familiar name. Paul had thought I had stopped blogging! Moving platforms every few years does that.

So a friend of mine was advising that I should push sign-ups to my newsletter, as he too believes that Twitter’s days in its current form are numbered. I’ve only sent out one mailing so far, but may increase the frequency to once a month or so. Mostly I’m a little worried that without Twitter people like me who produce content, but aren’t affiliated with a media distribution channel, are going to get lost in the din.

Anyway, please sign up if you don’t follow me on Twitter (or if you do).

Open Thread, 08/06/2017

I know that George R. R Martin has stated that the ending to A Song of Ice and Fire is going to be bittersweet. R. Scott Bakker’s conclusion to the Aspect Emperor tetralogy ends with a bittersour ending. Fair warning.

Also, the writing of the last third of The Unholy Consult was good in terms of packing a lot of action and plotting, but it was hard to keep track of all the obscure names.

The new episode of Game of Thrones is very good. Nice for things to actually happen.

I’ve been offline most of the weekend. Several people asked me about the Google Memo. Here’s the weird thing: huge subcultures within the organization aren’t even American. Several friends for example have been token Americans on Chinese teams. Their values and priorities are obviously very different even if they don’t inform the ‘public face’ of the company. It’s all rather strange (yes, whoever wrote that memo will surely be fired).

How Democrats Killed Their Populist Soul. I think Matt Stoller’s anti-monopolist views should appeal to many people on the Right as well as the Left. Google and Facebook are arguably much more powerful than any state government when it comes to shaping our culture.

A. N. Wilson spent five years working on a biography of Charles Darwin that is coming out next year. So he published It’s Time Charles Darwin Was Exposed for the Fraud He Was. I find Darwin idolatry a bit much sometimes personally. And I’m  not deeply versed in his intellectual biography. I’ve read The Origin of Species, and have read several of Peter J. Bowler’s works.

I can only comment on what I know in more detail. At some point Wilson tries to tag Neo-Darwinians with Dawkins’ atheism. But Dawkins is an extreme case. Arguably the god-father of the Neo-Darwinian Synthesis, R. A. Fisher, was an Anglican and a Tory. No offense to Dawkins, but his substantive scientific contribution is dwarfed by Fisher. And yet Wilson is pushing Dawkins to the front as an exemplar of Neo-Darwinism.

Wilson also says that Neo-Darwinians couldn’t therefore revere Gregor Mendel because he was a monk. It’s all rather strange because it’s called “Mendelian Genetics.” Not mention that biographies I’ve read suggested that Mendel himself was not excessively pious. Rather, his monastic vocation freed him from financial worries, allowing him sufficient leisure to engage in studies. But perhaps I’m wrong in this, after all Wilson has studied Darwin for five years!

Finally, there is the utilization of Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldridge to attack Darwinian gradualism. I’m not a big fan of all this macroevolutionary talk, but the late Gould and Eldridge would not be happy to be drafted in this way. Charles Darwin was wrong on a lot of things. That’s because he had a lot of ideas.

The central deep insight from Darwin’s theory was the power of natural selection to shape variation and drive adaptation. One can argue about the importance of this dynamic in evolutionary process, but the fact that it is still being studied shows how fruitful Darwin’s theory was in generating a living program of science.

What the company I work for is working on.

Open Thread, 07/31/2017

Read a bit of The Unholy Consult. People who say George R R Martin’s work is too dark? They need to really read a bit of R. Scott Bakker, and Martin will seem to like someone who sees the world through rose-colored glasses.

I’m thinking of reading The Witchwood Crown later because I might need a pick-me-up after The Unholy Consult. I’ve also had The Wise Man’s Fear in my Kindle stack for over five years now, but I plan on reading it when Patrick Rothfuss finishes the series with book 3.

Speaking of fantasy, there is a lot of commentary on Game of Thrones. Always. Some of it is quite dumb. For instance, Game of Thrones and race: who are the non-white characters and where are they from in the books and show? To make a sound argument you actually need to know something about the books. The writer does not. For example, “The Targaryen monarchs, who ruled Westeros for hundreds of years but, thanks to their thing for incest, never really bred all that much with the locals.” This is false. Daenerys is only 1/8th Valyrian (at most). Half her recent ancestry is from a First Men house, the Blackwoods (though it surely has much Andal blood too). About 3/8th of her recent ancestry is Dornish, so a mix of Andal, First Men, and Rhoynish.

Second, George R. R. Martin published the first book in the series in 1996. It was on his mind for years before that. Obviously if he was writing these books today he’d tune them so they were more in sync with the cultural politics of the contemporary Left (since that is where his own personal sympathies lie). But it isn’t as if he can go back and rewrite the major characters and add some diversity which some of his fans might now want. The 1990s were a different time. I recall back on some message boards that Renly’s sexual orientation was an issue for some readers. Martin was arguably ahead of the times on that score.

There are fantasy works where the central characters are nonwhite. Both Judith Tarr’s Avaryan series and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series have been around for a while. And both these worlds have the added benefit of not being standard Tolkienesque medieval settings.

Inside Facebook’s Rapid Growth in Austin. Their presence is felt.

Kimura & Crow: Infinite alleles. Really great piece on the working relationship between Motoo Kimura and James F. Crow. About 11 years I emailed Crow 10 questions on a lark. He responded in less than a day. Also, Kimura and Crow’s An Introduction to Population Genetics Theory is worth getting (it’s cheap).

Divorce and Occupation. No surprise that there’s a correlation between income and divorce rate (negative). But some professions are outliers. Bartender and nurse anesthetists are above the trend line (more divorce than their income predicts). Clerics and actuaries are well below it.

Postdoctoral positions in human population genomics, nutrigenomics, & association studies at Cornell in Alon Keinan’s lab.

How evolution draws trade-offs.

The TakingHayekSeriously Twitter account has been passing along pieces and posts around the controversy surrounding Nancy Maclean’s Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America. The book is ridiculous. So ridiculous that Vox published a piece Even the intellectual left is drawn to conspiracy theories about the right. Resist them.

I’ve been very loosely associated with libertarians because of my political sympathies for a long time. Years ago I actually visited The Center for Study of Public Choice where James Buchanan had his office because my friend Garett Jones had his office there. There’s no conspiracy here, or secret cabals under the radar. Libertarians are by and large a nerdy group of radicals fixated on stuff like the nonaggression principle. Just like you see on the internet. Kooky. Yes. But a cabal? Have you met libertarians? They don’t have the aptitude for that sort of coordination (Radicals for Capitalism is really the book to understand libertarianism, in particular because Buchanan and public choice theory have a minor role at best to play in libertarianism).

But that doesn’t matter. Democracy in Chains will validate the suspicions and beliefs of many people. And it’s a footnoted academic work. Unless it’s obvious fraud it’s going to be a success in influencing people.

Remember that Arming America won the Bancroft Prize for outstanding work of American history in 2000. Arming America was likely a work of fraud in large part. But its thesis, that America’s gun culture did not date to the colonial era, was congenial to the political ideology of many historians. Therefore even though it did not pass the smell test they gave the book rave reviews. I’d be surprised if  Democracy in Chains is a work of fraud. The author just doesn’t know what she’s talking about, but she is telling a story her audience wants to hear, with some academic credibility to boot (and so far historians have supposedly supported her).

The population genomics of archaeological transition in west Iberia: Investigation of ancient substructure using imputation and haplotype-based methods. I think these dynamics are going to be relatively common.

I must say, I don’t recommend All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy. The title suggests a broader work than it is. Far too much space is given to the English Reformation. Just thought I’d mention that.

Reading some of Big Gods: How Religion Transformed Cooperation and Conflict. Broadly agree with the thesis I think…but wondering about the replication of some of the experiments cited.

Also in my stack, The Red Flag: A History of Communism.

Andrew Sullivan notices in this week’s column that Islam seems to now be untouchable on the Left. This is going to too far, but liberals who express anti-Islamic sentiments are getting rather rare, and though privately many on the Left have serious issues with Islam (I know, because they tell me privately) they’re careful not to say it out loud lest they be attacked as racist. My own view is that there are 1.6 billion Muslims, so it makes sense for the Left to align with them. Isn’t world domination worth a hijab?

Don’t blame the Empire. Alex Tabarrok takes some deserved shots at Shashi Tharoor’s An Era of Darkness: The British Empire in India. The anti-colonialism tick often gets out of control among Indians, to the point where all evils are heaped upon the British. This is a major aspect of post-colonialism, which “erases” all identity-forming events before the arrival of Europeans.

Twitter lost 2 million users in the U.S. last quarter. Shit’s getting real Jack. If you use RSS, subscribe to my feed! I also have a mailing list, where I’ve sent out exactly one email so far. But if Twitter goes down….

Can 23andMe Tell Us If Jews Are A Race — And Is That A Good Thing? The author interviews scientists who know the science, but he still manages to garble and confuse everything. First, Ashkenazi Jews descend from a endogamous community which flourished in Central Europe probably no earlier than ~1000 AD. That is why a Ashkenazi Jewish cluster emerges naturally out of the population genetic data; there’s a real coherent demographic history being reflected. Whether that’s a “race” or not I’ll leave to the reader.

Second, the story states that “Sephardic Jews are not considered a distinct population by either company, or by researchers — their genetic make-up is not sufficiently different from surrounding North African, Iberian and Greek populations.” This very misleading. To a great extent Sephardic Jews are rather distinct from the surrounding populations. There is some evidence of shared ancestry in Moroccan Jews with Moroccan Berbers (I know because I’ve looked at a lot of this data), but it’s a small proportion. Similar things can be said about most Sephardic communities. But, they are not nearly as coherent a genetic cluster as Ashkenazi Jews. There has been some gene flow and assimilation with many local Jewish populations (e.g., the Syrian Sephardic Jews absorbed a local Levantine Jewish community, which had its own liturgy until the 19th century).

Neanderthal-Derived Genetic Variation Shapes Modern Human Cranium and Brain. Many people skeptical of the robustness of this result.

Open Thread, 07/23/2017

Finished The Enigma of Reason. The basic thesis that reasoning is a way to convince people after you’ve already come to a conclusion, that is, rationalization, was already one I shared. That makes sense since one of the coauthors, Dan Sperber, has been influential in the “naturalistic” school of anthropology. If you’ve read books like In Gods We Trust The Enigma of Reason goes fast. But it is important to note that the cognitive anthropology perspective is useful in things besides religion. I’m thinking in particular of politics.

I haven’t been blogging much since I was abroad on a business trip. Specifically to the Persian Gulf. I’ll say more later, though I am going to be vague on geography since I’d rather not mix these two streams of my life (also, to be clear, this is not related to my day job).

One Family, Many Revolutions: From Black Panthers, to Silicon Valley, to Trump. I had known of this connection before, between Ben Horowitz, the Silicon Valley VC guy, and David Horowitz, the right-wing provocateur. The elder Horowitz’s contention that one needs to play dirty to get anywhere is a position that I believe has more support today than it did ten years ago. The culture has come to him.

Don’t Believe in God? Maybe You’ll Try U.F.O.s. No surprise.

43 Senators Want to Make It a Federal Crime to Boycott Israeli Settlements. Here are the sponsors. I’ve never felt so sympathetic toward BDS….

My piece in India Today on South Asian genetics is hitting the printing press this week.